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You may have seen the dramatic images over the weekend: a luxury liner that ran aground off the coast of Italy and then turned on its side. At least six people died. And of the 4,200 people on board, more than a dozen are still unaccounted for. Rough weather today has forced officials to suspend rescue operations, and the focus now is on the captain, who is under arrest. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Investigators are already analyzing the ship's black box to determine how and why the Costa Concordia veered off course and collided with a rocky reef close to the shore of Giglio Island. But they'll be further assisted by a wealth of documentation provided by passengers themselves - the many videos they shot on mobile phones. This clip comes from Ronald Patricio Gonzales of Chile.
The video shows hundreds of passengers wearing life vests crowded on the deck. The atmosphere is confused, people shouting, terrified; nobody has told them what to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
POGGIOLI: The scene shifts outdoors, chaos and relief as island residents come out on their boats to rescue passengers. Claudio Masia later told us the ship had tilted so much, it was no longer possible to lower the lifeboats.
CLAUDIO MASIA: (Through translator) We were left to our own devices. We huddled on the keel, waiting, then we lowered a rope ladder. People came in their boats and rescued us - my mother, two children, my wife, and my nephew. But I can't find my father. I don't know where he is.
POGGIOLI: The body of 86-year-old Giovanni Masia, wearing a life vest, was found by divers Sunday afternoon in a submerged part of the ship.
The Costa Concordia shipwreck is a tale of the courage of many and the cowardice of one - the man in charge. Captain Francesco Schettino was already on shore hours before the last passengers were rescued from the tilting ship. Coast guard officials repeatedly ordered him back on board but he refused. He's now under arrest on suspicion of multiple manslaughter, shipwreck, tampering with evidence, and abandoning ship.
The shipping company issued a statement saying it appears the captain made errors in judgment. Francesco Verusio is the prosecutor heading the investigation.
FRANCESCO VERUSIO: (Through translator) It was a hazardous maneuver. He got too close to the island, some 150 yards from the coast. The captain gave the alarm around 10:42 p.m., one hour after the collision.
POGGIOLI: Verusio adds bringing the ship so close to Giglio was part of a maritime practice - a fly-by with the sounding of sirens, a salute to show off the brightly-lit luxury liner to the islanders.
The shipwreck took place in a stretch of the Mediterranean said to be the biggest designated marine park in Europe. The rocky reefs are a scuba diver's paradise, a natural habitat of dolphins, and a protected area for many fish species. Now there is fear of an environmental disaster. Officials say so far none of the ship's fuel has leaked.
A Dutch firm has been called in to help extract the fuel from the ship's tanks before anything leaks into the pristine waters. Environment Minister Corrado Clini says the passage of massive luxury liners in this stretch of sea has gone on too long.
CORRADO CLINI: (Through translator) These floating condominiums, which offer thrills for tourists, are a serious danger for the environment. We have to move quickly to prevent these huge ships, which are not equipped with a double hull, from entering these delicate areas.
POGGIOLI: The minister today will attend an emergency on-site meeting with experts to assess how to remove the shipwreck as quickly and safely as possible.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.